Mar 12, 2020 | Graham Watt
Recently the YouTube comedy duo Rhett and Link did a series on their popular podcast, Earbiscuits, about their lost years (working as Christian missionaries) and then told their individual stories of their faith journeys that they titled deconstruction.
Rhett and Link have been staples in my internet consumption for years, for songs like My OCD, I’m On Vacation, and years ago when Facebook was getting started, the Facebook Song. I have listened to their recent podcast episodes on their faith journeys and I have been reflecting as I digested them.
Around the same time, Justin Bieber has been increasingly public with what one might term his faith reconstruction. He grew up in a church-going childhood, hit massive internet fame and has zigged and zagged in his spiritual experience and life. He grew up and apparently lives some of his very famous life not far from where I live, so it is hard to avoid the media that surrounds him.
I have appreciated how he has sought to honestly process his own fame and sort through his own journey of faith. Some have inferred that Justin Bieber has reconstructed his faith in Jesus.
What is deconstruction and reconstruction?
Broadly speaking, the terms deconstruction and reconstruction are building metaphors. In building a house one constructs. In rebuilding a house that has been knocked down or damaged, whether from weather or wear, one reconstructs. A constructed house that is taken apart is deconstructed. Sensational deconstructions are often referred to as demolitions—when a big tower is blown up in such a way as to collapse in on itself. Deconstructions are more like taking apart a house piece by piece, beam by beam.
These terms are relevant to the popular discourse related to the Christian faith where people are deconstructing and reconstructing faith in different ways, often publicly. Renegotiating Faith, a study of young adults from Christian faith backgrounds in Canada, asserts that roughly 1 in 3 young adults raised within the Christian faith will claim to be agnostic or atheist in their beliefs by the time they graduate. Put in terms of deconstruction, 1 in 3 Canadians raised in Christian homes will deconstruct their faith by the time they graduate from university. Many more people deconstruct their faith following their university years.
As these conversations gain popularity, it is easy to dismiss people’s experience in either the deconstruction of faith or the reconstruction of faith. People often suspect poor motives of the other person in either case, whether deconstruction or reconstruction. This is common in the land of the internet, and as a result it’s easy to dismiss people’s experience.
I’d like to probe deeper into deconstruction and reconstruction by following the work of Charles Taylor, who has written a tome of literature on the topic of secularism.
Charles Taylor and why people reject God
Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, predicted that subtraction stories would be a defining characteristic of a secular age. This happens when people subtract the broad range of the transcendent across life and live in what he calls an imminent frame (the “here and now,” so to speak).
In other words, he believes that there are two major frames for life; he calls them the transcendent frame and the immanent frame.
In the transcendent frame you can assume God and see God in life and reality. In the immanent frame you see life without God and live in the here and now.
For example, Charles Taylor asserts that a person growing up in the middle ages in Europe automatically lived within a transcendent frame. All things flowed from God, so you could assume God in all things. Science, work, school, and everything else was within a transcendent frame in which most people lived, and it would be strange to dismiss God and thus live inside the immanent frame.
Fast forward to today (and Charles Taylor traces some of the developments that led to this in his book): the default assumption in society is the immanent frame. It feels and sounds weird to suggest that God is connected to everything. Charles Taylor would say we have experienced a large-scale subtraction story: subtracting God and the transcendent from contemporary life embracing the immanent as the default.
Rhett and Link’s stories are stories of subtraction on a personal scale, and there are many more like them.
Charles Taylor has helped me understand the ideas of deconstruction and reconstruction through a new lens. Since most people have been influenced by secularism today, they live with a disenchanted concept of the idea of God. They live inside what Charles Taylor would call the immanent frame of life.
Understanding Rhett and Link
I personally found Link’s story quite fascinating, because so much of his subtraction story related to self-hatred within his own faith experience, whereas Rhett’s had more apologetic overtones. Rhett’s story involves asking science-related questions and the Christian faith. He takes issue with the “follow the smart guy in apologetics” game as he calls it, and feels that science implies and allows for a natural deconstruction. He rejects the reductionism that he has experienced related to questions about the Christian faith.
Link’s deconstruction story has a totally different shape. He shares for a long time about the different ways in which he experienced feeling self-hatred as a Christian. Link’s story is the desire for internal health. Link doesn’t spend time discussing science and faith. He tells his experience growing up in a Christian environment and the different ways that affected him.
Rhett and Link take great pains to ask not to be dismissed, as they assume that Christians will dismiss their experiences and their motives.
A “new” Justin Bieber?
Moving over to the idea of reconstruction with Justin Bieber, he went through a season of disillusionment, and recently,
“he talked openly about his faith in Jesus, his “turning away from sin,” his reliance on grace, the influence of Christian mentors, his love of his wife, and how he believes Jesus saved him.”
One might summarize it as a rediscovery of faith in Jesus. He also describes how he had moved away from the faith of his childhood until he more recently went through different experiences that brought grace into his life.
Personally, I have attended conferences where speakers would share some of their text interchanges with Justin Bieber and invite the audience to pray for him. I often found that a little bit odd. While Justin Bieber may Instagram to 129 million people at once, I assumed his text messages to a pastor were private. That being said, it is obvious that he has been searching for God.
What does it look like to experience deconstruction and reconstruction, and to place your faith in Jesus? I am a follower of Jesus and I desire for others to follow Jesus. I believe Jesus is trustable. However, as I read these stories of questioning and struggle, I empathize with people in their experience.
Here are some reflections on these stories:
1. Heroes and villains
It is easy to designate individuals as heroes or villains in discussions about deconstruction and reconstruction, and to miss that people are involved. In the stories of Rhett and Link and Justin Bieber, their internet fame is of epic proportions. In the history of the world, rarely have any humans ever had the same level of platform that they do, where what they say is immediately consumed by millions of people around the world.
Their fame doesn’t change their humanity. They are still people, and their experiences are their experiences.
2. There’s a limited perspective shared
One of the challenges of deconstruction stories is that they operate from one perspective. A friend of mine shared this quote with me:
“In a podcast called ‘Reconstruct,’ Dr. Matthew Kaemingk, professor of ethics at Fuller, makes an insightful remark about the relationships between deconstruction and faith. Sometimes, deconstruction stories are framed in such a way that makes it sound as though we can fully step outside of the space of “faith” and analyze them from the unbiased, objective space of “truth, evidence, critical thinking, etc.”
But this really isn’t the case. While we can certainly evaluate various worldviews in the pursuit of truth, we are always choosing to believe something. Kaemingk says:
“We don’t deconstruct from nowhere. You cannot stand nowhere and deconstruct, so deconstruction actually implies a real confidence in or something or someone. You cannot criticize without belief in some kind of thing, even if it’s just your own mind, you have [to have] confidence in your own mind’s ability to deconstruct something.”
In Rhett’s case, he came from a certain perspective on the intersection of faith and science, and found it wanting. Interestingly, this week a major Christian publisher published a viewpoint of a theologian integrating Rhett’s perspective on common ancestry and the Christian faith. While this area is way outside my speciality or interest, my reflection on this is this: while one may deconstruct from one perspective and choose to dismiss faith, another may find that same point reassuring of their faith. This leads me to my next point.
3. Be charitable and kind in listening
Their journey is their journey and not mine. Rhett, Link, and Justin Bieber have their own journeys that are not mine. Regardless of my opinion, I want to be charitable and kind towards them.
We should also major on kindness in listening to each other. Rhett and Link repeat in their podcast episodes that they fear being misrepresented and misunderstood. Now, they have been YouTubers for over a decade, so I am sure that they are very aware of how people can misconstrue them in comments and within the wider land of the internet.
Listening to them reminded me that I desire to be charitable and kind towards other people’s stories. To listen to their experience, seeking to understand, is part of choosing to treat others as humans. This leads me to a fourth point.
4. We have limits in understanding
We are limited in our awareness of the fullness of someone’s story. We hear someone at a moment of time as they process who they are at that moment in their awareness. I am sure there were times when fans of Justin Bieber would be despairing of his choices and faith perspective. That’s not to say we only listen because we assume positive outcomes in the future.
More accurately, we listen because a person deconstructing or reconstructing is in their own unique process. To be invited into dialogue is one thing. Lobbing criticism from within our limited understanding of a person’s story only adds to the person’s narrative surrounding what they are “leaving.”
5. Deconstruction and reconstruction is normal
I believe that most people within a western mindset of faith go through some form of a deconstruction and reconstruction. Back to Charles Taylor: he calls this age, the age of authenticity. He asserts that people are influenced by secularism’s individualism. He writes that “the nova effect has been intensified. We are now living in a spiritual super-nova, a kind of galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane” (page 300).
People in their own deconstruction or reconstruction are seeking out their own individual way of making sense of the world. It can be that they are moving from the transcendent frame to the immanent frame of reference for life or the opposite. It is easy to rush from a Bible text and simply assume that people just need to be corrected or convinced of something in particular to have them move in the direction of the transcendent frame of reference. In today’s world, however, many people have tried Christianity and struggled—or in Link’s language, journalled—80% of the time about self-hatred as a Christian.
To validate someone’s experience as legitimate is not to say that it is ideal; it is simply to assume it is their experience. It’s obvious from many of the comments on the experiences of either Rhett and Link, or Justin Bieber, that people don’t believe they are authentic in any way. I think the opposite is true.
Rhett, Link, and Justin Bieber—and all people—are living in an age of authenticity whereby they are seeking and trying to make sense of life and their intersection with faith. It can be hard for celebrities to be real and to be honest. I commend their authentic pursuit of wholeness. Just try and imagine what Justin Bieber’s life is like: an Instagram post he makes goes to 129 million people instantly. That scope of influence is staggering.
By way of contrast, Billy Graham is reported to have spoken live to more people in human history than any other human, by an incredible margin. He is reported to have spoken live to 210 million people. Justin Bieber instantly can send a selfie and his thoughts to 129 million people just on one social media platform (he is said to be the second most influential person on social media worldwide).
Imagine for a moment what that does to your insides—to your deconstruction and reconstruction. Our age of authenticity is lived out loud and in the public sphere in ways that are new and fresh in today’s world, as seen in Justin Bieber’s experience. As an aside, I find it amazing that a person from a small town in Canada is the second most influential person in the world on social media.
In this age of authenticity, people are sharing their thoughts and feelings as they process in real time and in public. It’s normal.
6. Jesus engaged with people’s doubts
How does Jesus fit into deconstruction and reconstruction? Much has been said about Rhett and Link’s background in the Bible Belt, and about Justin Bieber growing up in a religious background. My own reflection is that Jesus is both self-sufficient and a friend. He became a human and treated people humanely.
So, how does Jesus deal with people’s doubts? That is a good question. In my reflection, Jesus’ tough words were for the religious people who used religion and power to their personal advantage, and he was tender to those who had questions. Jesus, being all-knowing, knew people’s motives. As humans we can infer motives, but we can’t fully know another’s motive.
Rhett and Link perceived doubt in an interesting way. Their story emphasized their turning points of doubt and included how they perceived others’ feelings, or even their own feelings, towards those doubts. This is interesting to me, because I have observed that the people in the Bible are full of doubts. Even major characters in the Bible express doubt in different ways, including one of the more famous, Thomas. He even has his name modified by it in regular usage as “doubting Thomas.” He longed for physical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection, and Jesus didn’t rebuke him for asking.
Doubt isn’t absent from followers of Jesus. To read the Gospels, including the disciples’ interplay with the ministry of Jesus, is to observe that Jesus patiently works through and with them.
7. Validating experience vs. agreeing with conclusions
Philosophy has given us many things, like the ability to analyze arguments. This is a wonderful tool that helps us evaluate ideas, precepts, and concepts. One of the dangers in this evaluation is to evaluate other people’s ideas without first appreciating that they come from a person. In other words, we can too easily reduce a person’s experience to a paradigm to be dissected, rather than seeing them as a person with an experience that can be summarized and discussed.
For example, there are a wide range of Twitter comments breaking down Rhett and Link’s argumentation. While this may be interesting to some, in human interaction, it misses a key step—that of listening and appreciating where a person is coming from.
As I listened to Link’s experience I felt things like, “That sounds hard, living with so much self-hatred.” It’s important to humanely enter into a person’s story and feel something.
The next step is to interact with a person’s conclusions—in Link’s case, what the self-hatred flows from. In my view, one can listen to another person in deconstruction and reconstruction and empathize, without engaging in a discussion of the premises that lead to a conclusion. They are two different steps. To skip the step of appreciating the person’s experience is to see past their human experience and see their paradigm. It can be worth discussing the paradigms and premises embedded in a person’s story, but jumping right there can miss the person.
Listening in the “age of authenticity”
I would imagine that if you are reading until now, there are people around you in various forms of deconstruction or reconstruction.
I haven’t discussed Kanye West, Joshua Harris, or many other people who are publicly describing their journeys in the age of authenticity. I would imagine that outside of people with significant internet followings, there are people around you sorting through pain and hurt and hardship, rethinking and reframing questions that they have about faith.
One of the ways to enter into that is to listen, and try to hear and appreciate a person’s experience—to validate it as their experience. Regardless of where they are on their journey, it’s possible to empathize with what they are going through as they deconstruct or reconstruct. It is a vulnerable place for a person to be.
After listening well, see if you are invited to interact with the thought patterns and conclusions. It’s easy to worry about their “end result” in their process too much and to miss the person who feels stuck in the middle. There are people all around sorting through feelings and thought patterns who are trying to make sense of life and faith.
I have enjoyed listening to the Approach podcast this winter. It may seem weird and even awkward to simply listen and provide space for the journey, but there is something healthy about hearing a person’s story.
In Western culture, we are used to story arcs in movies and TV shows that have resolution. We like the resolution—even if we don’t always like how a story plays out in a movie. We don’t want to leave a movie midway and call it done. Stories of reconstruction and deconstruction are usually in process, and the direction can be difficult to discern. Sometimes it is easy to picture ourselves listening as omniscient narrators in a story, who want to offer advice in third person as a narrator would.
In my own understanding, as people are sorting through things, listening doesn’t always lead to immediate resolution, but it helps in understanding each other. As Justin Bieber says, “being human is challenging for everyone,” and to listen to people is to humanize a person, to hear and validate their experience.
What thoughts do you have as you reflect on deconstruction and reconstruction in the public sphere?
Have you gone through a deconstruction of faith or a reconstruction of faith?
Have you experienced people around you deconstructing their faith?
Have you felt missed or misunderstood as you shared your journey of faith?
You can hear Graham and his daughter Hannah discuss these ideas and more on the recent episode of their podcast, Dear Student: